We’ve all been at a dinner party or pre where political discussion rears its ugly head and hijacks a corner of the room or end of the table. People usually react in one of four ways when this happens:

  1. The Pamplona bull approach: He or she charges in furiously, opinions in hand, ready to use any means necessary (personal anecdotes, news stories, statistics, etc.) to bring the light.
  2. The diplomatic approach: They see the commotion and, concerned, go over and try to mediate, so that both sides can either find common ground or “agree to disagree.”
  3. The comic approach: They traipse over and sit on the fringes, listening keenly, ready to pop up with a witty quip as often as they can.
  4. The doesn’t approach: This is what most of us do, look over our shoulders, see a disagreement, and proceed to keep drinking or eating and talking to others who share our belief that debates and disagreements are pointless and improper.

Most of us think that the comics, the diplomats, and the bulls are the “bad guys.” Bad bulls drive evil agendas, diplomats hinder the good, forcing people to give way where they shouldn’t, and comics hinder the debate itself. And why are they debating anyway? Nobody’s mind is going to be changed, it’s a rare thing for a bull to be convinced to do a 180. But, I believe that the worst people in the room are actually the non-approachers. By not even entertaining the prospect of disagreeing with a “bad” bull, they make it easier for “bad” ideologies to spread, and, subsequently, for themselves to become aligned with them.

The easiest way for a country to become evil is through the complicity of the people rather than through their cooperation. Evil doesn’t always come in the form of a country with a fully mobilized populace, all of whom believe in ‘the mission’. Moral bankruptcy takes root easiest in those places where people don’t openly question their own beliefs and the beliefs of others. This silence usually derives either from laziness or fear, namely fear of disagreement. Why is the idea of disagreement so disagreeable to us? Sartre, who has written on this topic, thought that we naturally shy away from the idea of coming to hate or be hated for differences in belief. It’s easier not to be disgusted by the beliefs of your Tory neighbour, so you never ask about his or her opinions on immigration.

While I think Sartre makes a good point, I think that today disagreement is unpopular for a different reason—disagreement exposes us to our own ignorance. All of us have had the classic debate about international politics where we spend half the time putting forward a (very) tenuous string of half-baked ideas and the other half praying that our “opponent” doesn’t hit us with a FACT that’ll destroy our point. It’s a nervous thing, but probably the best spur one can get to properly educate oneself on a subject. Most people are debate-chaste because they think “Oh I’ll never change my mate’s mind and he/she will never change mine—we have fundamental disagreements, it’s useless.” Now, there is some truth in that mindset, but convincing the other shouldn’t be the only benefit or aim of a debate.

In the course of a debate, one is allowed a special kind of insight into one’s own mind and set of “firmly held” beliefs. You’re forced to understand your opinion in a way that you rarely are otherwise. Articulating your beliefs requires a certain level of understanding of them—we walk around most of the time operating in light of our “fundamental” beliefs, and never stop to think about how flimsy our belief in them is. Almost everyone has a set of unquestioned beliefs bestowed upon them by their parents, friends, social standing, race, gender, sexuality, etc. While some of these may be “correct,” it is incredibly dangerous to possess any unexamined belief.

Debates and disagreements are the best tools we have to help us come face to face with those beliefs and truly consider changing them. They force us to look at what we normally look through. So please, next time you’re at a dinner party and the Surrey-bred guy in a faded FILA jumper rolls a cigarette and groans about benefits, challenge him. Even if you know nothing about the benefits system, disagree—not for his sake, but for yours.